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The Gastown Riots of 1971

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

On August 7th, 1971, Vancouver’s Yippie Party and writers from The Georgia Straight organized a pro-marijuana “smoke-in” at Maple Tree Square to oppose Vancouver drug policies. Thousands of supporters gathered in the Gastown district, dancing in the street to live music, raising their fists along to demonstrator speeches, and licking LSD soaked popsicles. Imagine: a sea of shaggy heads bobbing along to psychedelia beneath a haze of marijuana smoke lingering above. The festivities came to a sudden halt after a protester allegedly broke a window, which served as a catalyst for officers on site to act. Chaos quickly ensued as uniformed, plain clothes, and mounted officers charged the crowd, displaying a level of extreme violence and unnecessary brutality towards protesters.

This tumultuous moment in Vancouver history has been memorialized by Stan Douglas’ photomural Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (2008). Stretching 50 x 30 feet across the atrium of the redeveloped Woodwards Building, Douglas’ installation confronts visitors with a graphic reimagination of the Gastown Riot. Through its cinematic proportions, bold theatricality, and unapologetic audacity, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 brings a moment of shame subjected to the periphery of Vancouver history to the forefront.

Rather than work on site, Douglas re-created the street corner of Abbott and West Cordova in a parking lot adjacent to the Hastings Park Race Track. Shot over the course of three nights, Douglas’ final piece was composed of 50 images that were digitally sutured to created one complete mural. In comparison to popular press images from the 1971 event that depict masses of shaggy-haired protesters chaotically dodging police batons, Douglas’s photograph seems depopulated. In an interview with Alexander Alberro of The Tyee, Douglas describes his piece as depicting “one of what must have been many micro-events around Gastown that night.”

By turning viewers’ attention away from the epicentre of the riot and towards actions occurring on the margins of the event, Abbott & Cordova offers a version of history alternative to conventional retrospect. Douglas’s interest in what lies beyond the confines of Vancouver’s collective memory of the Gastown Riot further translates itself through his compositional choices. The events that occurred on the corner of Abbott and West Cordova during the evening of August 7th, 1971 are revealed through a series of tableaux situated along the perimeters of the frame: two shaggy protesters resist detainment in a police paddy wagon, a member of the mounted squad tramples a young hippie, and a denim-clad youth is dragged across the intersection by two uniformed officers while middle-class onlookers view the scene from the sidelines with shock and disapproval. In contrast, the centre of the image is left evacuated of activity, providing a space for viewers to project themselves into the historical scene. The effect of shooting the photograph from a slightly elevated vantage point arouses a sense of voyeurism that offers visitors to the Woodwards complex the opportunity to immerse themselves in the violence of the past from the safety of the present.

Douglas’s installation was conceptualized following a series of conversations with architect and developer of the Woodwards Redevelopment Project, Gregory Henriquez. After the Woodwards Department Store declared bankruptcy and officially closed in 1993, the site has undergone immense redevelopment. Today, the Woodward’s complex includes retail space, mixed with housing, office units, and the SFU downtown campus. Abbott & Cordova responds to the site as a hub of consumerism by establishing a relationship with advertising; the aggressive proportions and natural backlighting of the installation are reminiscent of a billboard. Simultaneously, the piece negates this association, as the violence depicted in the scene disrupts the consumable quality of advertising and instead presents viewers with an image that is difficult to swallow.

With 2016 marking the 45th anniversary of the Gastown Riot, what happened during the night of August 7th, 1971 triggered many conversations that are still alive today: the legalization of marijuana, gentrification, social transitions, and the fate of urban communities. Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 may have taken Stan Douglas over 50 shots to complete, but the social conflict portrayed in the piece has remained unresolved in Vancouver for close to 50 years. As shoppers cross the Woodward’s atrium with brown paper bags full of groceries and other goods, the powerful presence of Douglas’s photograph calls into question a different type of consumption: the consumption of history.

By re-enacting a scene from the Gastown Riot, Abbott & Cordova prompts viewers to question how the depiction of historic events contribute to our understanding of present conditions. The theatricality of the photograph recalls memory as if on a film reel, with Douglas rewinding and pressing pause at this decisive moment. Although the photograph is a re-creation of a single point in history, it’s presence in Vancouver’s downtown serves as a reminder of a battle still being fought.


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